There is a category of fiction found on Amazon that is driven by erotic fantasies about Bigfoot. Beast Me: Taken in the Jungle, Moan with Bigfoot, Broken In by Bigfoot, 50 Shades of Furry . . . It’s not the kind of stuff that wins prizes. Ah, but take that impulse, bring in an Oscar-caliber director working with a script whose payload of progressive messaging lands about as subtly as a wheelbarrow full of bricks emptied on your head, and you’ve got one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, one that seems likely to haul in eight or ten Academy Award nominations.
The film is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and the nicest way I can describe it is E.T., phone Harlequin. It takes place in an evocatively dingy, drably colored 1962 Baltimore, during what a fairy-tale like prologue informs us are “the last days of a fair prince’s reign” — that’s right, the fair prince here would be John F. Kennedy. Let the word go forth to a new generation that 2017 should be the last year in which this kind of senseless Kennedy mythologizing takes place. We’ve become a little bit wiser in recent months, haven’t we? It’s now clear that we should think of JFK as the Harvey Weinstein of Hyannis Port.
Del Toro’s trio of leads are such woebegone victims of their benighted times that their rake-your-tear-ducts qualities would have made even Charlie Chaplin or Charles Dickens say, “Maybe dial it back a little.” There’s a lonely, mute, orphaned cleaning woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins); her friend the frustrated gay artist (Richard Jenkins); and another cleaning lady, a racially victimized black woman (Octavia Spencer). They all wind up conspiring to pull a Free Willy act to liberate the scary fish-man the government found in South America and is keeping at a secretive lab where the two women do custodial work. Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic government agent, is mainly interested in torturing the amphibious six-foot monster, which he keeps chained up in a tank.
Elisa, though, is thrilled by the monster’s lean, rippled form: He’s her Aquaman. She flirts with it by teaching it sign language, playing it Benny Goodman records, and feeding it eggs. This isn’t one of those “I love you like a friend” situations, either. She wants to knock boots, or flippers, or something. One aspect she seems to find especially pleasing is that it will never lie to her. Just like Bigfoot!
The monster (played under prosthetics by Doug Jones, presumably not the one running for Senate in Alabama) is designed like one of those scaly creatures from a cheesy 1950s sci-fi movie. But it’s really Shannon’s character who is the Creature from a Black Lagoon of prejudice, hate, and selfish sex (which for him happens with his shirt, pants, and socks still on). Around the breakfast table with the family, he even drinks milk straight from the bottle. As a figure of hate — racist, misogynist, xenophobic — he’s so overwritten that it’s as if he was concocted in some dank word laboratory where the most excitable writers from Vox, Salon, and Teen Vogue gathered to discuss their most febrile nightmares. At one point, Strickland is so foul that bits of him are literally turning black and falling off. By contrast, the serene, sensitive, mute cleaning lady is discovering that the supposedly ugly underwater creature is actually a beautiful soul. What’s ugly is midcentury American prejudice. (The same pardon-me-while-I-hammer-away-at-this-cliché message, minus the monster but plus Montgomery Ward chintz, was the inspiration for George Clooney’s Suburbicon.)
When it comes to writing message movies, there’s laying it on thick, and then there’s stucco.
As often as the G-Man zaps the monster with a cattle prod, del Toro’s script (co-written with Vanessa Taylor) zaps us with one progressive message or another. Some of these points are made indirectly, via metaphor; other times, del Toro simply has the villain mutter nasty epithets about women or blacks or “gooks.” Giles, Elisa’s best friend, is gay for no reason linked to the plot; he’s simply there to trundle around the message that homophobia is bad. The story stops dead on several occasions so we can check in on him being a figure of pathos. Del Toro even crams in a reference to evil companies. When it comes to writing message movies, there’s laying it on thick, and then there’s stucco.
In an especially contrived subplot, the monster becomes a point of Cold War contention because, we’re meant to believe, amphibious creatures might make good astronauts. Each side wants to kill the monster to prevent the other side from exploiting it, and it falls to the gay best friend to step up and read out del Toro’s thesis like a waiter announcing the specials of the day: The creature is the normal one. It’s we humans who are weird. It’s such a deep thought, I look forward to seeing it again in book form, in the closing pages of 50 Shades of Scaly.